Our unduly selected representatives

By Tom Brazaitis
Published January 13th 2002 in Cleveland Plain Dealer

At the risk of destroying yet another cherished illusion from your high school civics class, I regretfully inform you that, contrary to what you have been told, you do not elect your member of Congress.

Oh, sure, if you are a conscientious citizen, you dutifully go the polls every two years and cast a ballot for or against the incumbent representative in your district. But, with few exceptions, the outcome in each of the country's 435 congressional districts is preordained.

As we embark on another congressional election year, experts are predicting that, at most, 25 to 30 districts in the country will be competitive. The outcome in the other 405 or 410 districts is a foregone conclusion.

The reason for this is that members of Congress are, in fact, selected, not elected, by a process called redistricting that takes place every 10 years following the national census. Voters have no say in redistricting. The lines for congressional districts are drawn in almost all states by governors and state legislators, who have two main concerns: 1) ensuring that their party, Republican or Democratic, depending on who's in charge, controls as many districts as possible, and 2) carving out districts that they themselves might be able to run in to move up the political ladder to federal office.

By creating districts heavily weighted toward one party or the other, the state politicians who draw the lines determine the outcome of all but a small percentage of congressional races for the next 10 years, until it's time to redraw the lines again.

Occasionally, an unexpected result occurs, such as the brief period when a Republican represented the heavily Democratic district of Youngstown and its environs, but it is these exceptions that prove the rule. In the case cited, voters chose Republican Lyle Williams rather than continue the reign of scandal-prone Democrat Charles Carney. The district later was returned to Democratic hands, if only nominally, by Rep. James Traficant.

Designating territory that is safe for one party or the other sometimes results in contorted districts spanning several counties with dissimilar legislative interests. But such disservice to the people living in those districts doesn't matter to the politicians who draw the lines, just as long as their selfish goals are achieved.

Usually, this gerrymandering, as it is called, takes place unobtrusively. Some voters don't realize what's been done until they show up at the polls.

Much to the chagrin of the political mucky-mucks in Ohio, the redistricting process has become very public, through no one's fault but their own. Although census data have been available for months, the Republican office-holders who have sole control of redistricting in the state dilly-dallied so long that it is now too late to redraw the lines in time for the state's May 7 primary without the consent of the Democratic minority.

Population shifts to the south and west will cost Ohio one of its 19 congressional seats. With control fully in their hands, Republican gerrymanderers want to make sure the seat that is lost is a Democratic seat and would like to weaken other Democratic districts as well. Because of term limits on state offices, some legislators want districts redrawn to suit their future ambitions.

Notice how the decision-making has nothing to do with the voters' best interests.

The Republicans, in their own best interests, have abandoned their proposal for a separate congressional primary in August, which would have cost taxpayers at least $6 million.

In the meantime, they had to endure Democrats' accusations that they wanted to push back the filing deadline to prevent Democratic congressmen who are redistricted from filing for state offices in the May primary.

Ironically, the Republicans' excuse for delaying the redistricting bill was that their first priority was dealing with a projected $1.5 billion budget shortfall. So, their solution is to add to the deficit in order to balance the budget.

Regular readers of this column know that my solution for this highly partisan exercise is to take redistricting out of the hands of elected officials by appointing a bipartisan commission to redraw the lines every 10 years. Better yet, do away with the current system of single-member congressional districts and replace it with multimember districts, say, two five-member districts and two four-member districts.

Ohio once was a national leader in proportional representation, which allowed voters to cast ballots that really mattered and produced more broadly representative legislative bodies.

The politicians seized back control of the process and re-established a system they could manipulate for partisan advantage.

Ohio's Republican leaders were shamed out of their petty plan to push back the congressional primaries, but voters need not forgive them for what they wanted to do, nor forget it next Election Day.

Brazaitis is a senior editor in The Plain Dealer's Washington bureau.